A “gaudy and inaccurate” mural by a renowned street artist will be removed from a historic fishing village after objections exposed deep sensitivities about how women persecuted for witchcraft are portrayed in modern times.
The mural of the menacing witch reaching her spindly fingers towards passersby covers the gable end wall of the Larachmhor Tavern, a 19th-century category C listed building that sits within the conservation area of Pittenweem, Fife.
The unanimous decision by Fife council’s north-east planning committee to order the removal of the painting was made last week after a retrospective application by the owner of the tavern, who commissioned the mural for Halloween last year.
The committee ruled that the work by Rogue One – also know as Bobby McNamara, and who is a fixture of Glasgow’s well-established street art scene – was not in keeping with the muted tones around Pittenweem’s historic harbourside.
“Garish” is a descriptive that the artist himself was quite happy to employ, along with “bold”, “ugly” and “scary”, as he explained how his work was inspired by the classic Disney witches of the Wizard of Oz and Snow White.
“I know it’s a quaint wee village and this is a strong mural,” he said, “but I did my own research into the women who were killed there, and I wanted to get people talking.”
Some of those who complained to him while he was working on the mural – and there were plenty of others who welcomed it, he added – said they “didn’t want to be reminded” of past persecutions.
But the row comes as the drive for posthumous justice for the thousands of people persecuted as witches in post-Reformation Scotland is growing, with campaigners pushing for an official pardon after the former first minister Nicola Sturgeon issued a formal apology last International Women’s Day to those tortured and often executed under the Witchcraft Act 1563.
Sean Dillon, a Lib Dem councillor who grew up in the village, said that Pittenween had never shied away from its dark past, but added: “The residents who have contacted me have said that the portrayal of an 18th-century villager as a stereotypical witch that one might find on Halloween is rather insensitive, especially given the present-day links within the village to the accused women. Despite these events happening over three centuries ago, there are still families within Pittenweem who can trace their family trees back to the supposed ‘witches’.”
The charity Remembering the Accused Witches of Scotland (RAWS) estimates that during the great witch-hunts of the 16th and 17th centuries there were approximately 350 known accused witches in Fife, with up to 28 accused in Pittenweem itself, most famously Janet Cornfoot, who escaped from the local tollbooth but was caught and returned to Pittenweem, where she was lynched by a mob.
The chair of RAWS, Sheila Gaul, said: “Murals have been a great way to remember the accused locally, with some beautiful examples in nearby Valleyfield. But this image is unfortunately a stereotype and not a true representation of those accused of witchcraft or the horrors they went through”.
RAWS has plans to educate a new generation of schoolchildren about this historical campaign of femicide and create a national monument to those ordinary people whose lives were ripped apart. The charity believed in memorialisation, said Gaul, and the telling of the stories of the accused, “but it should be respectful and dignified”.
Others have defended the mural, with Leonard Low, a local historian, dismissing critics as “snowflakes”.
Low told the Dundee-based Courier newspaper that he believed the mural should be embraced as a means of promoting the village’s history. “I think the mural is fantastic and I absolutely endorse it. It’s about time somebody was milking the place for the tourism it deserves.”
An online petition organised by another local calls for the “beautiful and individual painting” to be saved, arguing that it is likely to engage visitors in the same way the village’s summer arts festival does, with benefits for local businesses still struggling after the pandemic.
The owner of the Larachmhor Tavern, who has declined to comment throughout the row, now has three months to appeal against the decision.
But McNamara was philosophical: “As a street artist, you’re used to murals coming and going. I’m surprised it’s lasted this long and everyone’s got something out of it, whether that’s publicity for me, the pub, the village or for the women”.